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Inclusion and empowerment of persons with disabilities – imperative for building sustainable and resilient societies

22 June 2018

On 13 June 2018, UNESCO co-organized a side-event ‘Empowering persons with disabilities and building inclusive societies: Right to education, freedom of expression and access to information, participation in and enjoyment of culture’, at the 11th Conference of States Parties to the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The side-event was organized by UNESCO, together with the Permanent Missions of Bulgaria, Colombia and Tunisia, as well as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Nippon Foundation. The panel discussion brought together distinguished ambassadors, representatives the UN system and civil society, and looked at how education, access to information, participation in and enjoyment of the cultural life, contributes to empowerment of persons with disabilities and to fulfillment of their rights.

Ms Marie Paule Roudil, UNESCO Representative to United Nations and the Director of Liaison Office in New York, underscored a paradigm shift in perceiving persons with disabilities as contributors and actors of positive change, rather than as mere receivers of protection. Ms Roudil called for universal access to quality equitable education and lifelong learning opportunities for all, without discrimination. In this context, UNESCO is working with partners on the preparation of the International Forum on Inclusion in Education, aimed at building a common understanding and a renewed commitment towards inclusive education.

Subsequently, Ms Irmgarda Kasinskaite-Buddeberg, Programme Specialist, Knowledge Societies Division, Communication and Information Sector, UNESCO, presented the Outcome Document of the Asia-Pacific Festival of Artistes with Disabilities. The Festival, held in March 2018 in Singapore, brought together outstanding artists with disabilities from countries in Asia-Pacific region to highlight the transformative power of art. The speaker also brought attention of the audience to the UNESCO publication Learning for All: Guidelines on the Inclusion of Learner with Disabilities in Open and Distance Learning, that addresses the roles all stakeholders in supporting access to quality learning and training opportunities in Open and Distance Learning institutions for students with disabilities, using inclusive, accessible and affordable solutions.

Joining the discussion, Ms Catalina Devandas Aguilar, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, expressed her concern over remaining stigma and exclusion of the majority of children with disabilities from the education process, and therefore denial of their fundamental rights. Stating that ‘our classrooms are mirrors of our societies’, the Special Rapporteur called for a transformational change to  ensure an access education for children with disabilities on an equal basis with others.

Member states shared experiences, good practices and challenges in advancing national legislation, inclusive policies and programs, aimed at ensuring fulfillment of rights and of persons with disabilities, and full implementation of the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Many highlighted the particular importance of the Convention’s Article 24, standalone article on education, which  calls for ‘access an inclusive, quality and free primary education and secondary education on an equal basis with others in the communities in which they live’ for persons with disabilities. Ambassador Georgi Velikov Panayotov, Permanent Representative of Bulgaria to the United Nations, expressed the Government’s strong commitment to the protection of rights of persons with disabilities, and their inclusion and participation in the decision-making processes. Strengthening the legal framework, Bulgaria adopted a new pre-school and school education act that establishes inclusive education as the state policy. Ambassador Mohamed Khaled Khiari, Permanent Representative of Tunisia to the United Nations, underscored that education could largely contribute to inclusion and empowerment of persons with disabilities, especially those who live in areas affected by conflict and emergencies. Colombia began a process of strengthening legislation, inspired by the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Inter-American Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities, according to Ambassador Francisco Gonzalez, Deputy Permanent Representative of Colombia to the United Nations.